Tag Archives: diet culture

1 piece of broccoli and 1 cherry tomato on a plate being eaten with a knife and fork bound with tape measure

Why “going on a diet” doesn’t work!

TW – Trigger Warning – I’m aware many of my readers have eating disorder either currently or in their history. Please be aware this blog talks about food frankly and openly. If this may be a trigger for you, please click onto another blog!

One of the hardest things I feel I’ve had to contend with while recovering from anorexia is full-on diet culture! It’s everywhere, from magazines in waiting rooms to everyday in the office. A day doesn’t go by where someone talks about the weight they’ve lost, or put on, or what diet they’re going to try next.

I’ve found it quite shocking, when I was ill, I was in a bubble of denial about these kind of things, I didn’t talk to people about food, nor them to me so I had no idea there was so much rubbish out there.

I think the most bizarre, to date, has to be the potato diet – you’ve guessed it – all my colleague ate for weeks was potatoes! I’m guessing the logic is that you’ll be so bored of them that eventually you’ll just stop eating and you might lose a bit of weight. But seriously…who dreamt this up?! How can just potatoes sustain a human being?!

I’m taking this back to basics. Very broadly there are 3 reasons we eat:

1. Food is available
Buffet table full of food

This may be simple, someone has brought some cakes into the office and they’re offered round. You eat one because they’re waved in front of your nose. You may feel “it’s rude not to” or you may just fancy one.

We also follow this rule when we live by strict habits. For example, lots of people eat 3 meals a day, each day fairly similar no matter how different their needs are on each day. Habitually, it’s 1pm, you prepare lunch and eat it because it’s there.

This is also the case when we live in family groups. “We eat dinner at 6.30pm because that’s when most people are likely to be hungry”.

2. We’re emotional

Females are renowned for this but it can happen to anyone. For some it’s a case of stuffing their feelings down, “If I eat, I don’t have to feel”. Or it may feel like a comfort, food just makes everything feel a bit better doesn’t it? All sorts of emotions may work in this way, living in the western world, food is available as a coping mechanism.

3. We’re hungry

Our body’s pretty clever, when it requires more food, you experience symptoms of hunger and we can use these as a signal to eat. Your stomach may physically feel empty or may be making noises, you may feel light-headed, irritable or lacking in concentration. If you’re feeling these things but you’ve only just eaten, they’re unlikely to be hunger, but if it’s been a couple of hours, they may signal hunger.

None of these reasons to eat are wrong

If you’re at a dinner party and not hungry, it’s totally fine to eat when food is available. It’s not just polite, it’s a sociable thing to do. If you’ve had a shocking day at work and you just fancy a a massive ice cream or block of chocolate, that’s ok.

Square of carrot cake on a plate

It’s important to be aware of why you’re eating. When you’ve met up with your girlfriends for a coffee and chinwag, if you just fancy that slice of carrot cake because you saw it on the counter, do it – but make sure you know you’re eating it because it was there. Don’t pretend to yourself you’re hungry, or you’ll “make up for it later” or any other “excuse”. It’s ok to say “I’m having it because it was there and I want it.”

If however, you know you’re a grazer and you tend to just eat food “because it’s there”, try to become more mindful about this. Do you need snacks in the cupboard?

Emotional eating is a really important one to be aware of – eating our feelings is dangerous. The only healthy way to manage feelings is to fully experience them a talk about them. Say to yourself, “I’m having this bar of chocolate because I’m really sad” – you may then decided you don’t need the bar of chocolate and may express your emotion in a different way but as long as your acknowledge it, you can make sure that you deal with the underlying emotions as well.

As a generalisation, people are over weight because they have consumed more calories than they have expended. This is likely to be because they have done more eating for reasons numbers 1 and 2. I reiterate, these are not wrong, but we need to be mindful of them in order to keep them in check.

Being mindful of what we’re eating and why is the most important part of having a healthy relationship with food. Having a healthy relationship with food is not about say “yes” or “no” to “good” or “bad” foods, it’s not about having rules, it’s about listening to our body and being aware of what it needs and when.

(I’m not entirely sure I’m as in tune with my body as I’d like to be – I say I’m fully recovered form anorexia but I still struggle to know when I’m hungry, what it means when I’m craving food and most of the time I feel totally disconnected from my body – it’s work in progress!)

“Going on a diet” doesn’t change anything

Eating potatoes [insert latest fad] for a month may help you lose a few pounds but if you’ve not changed your relationship with food, when you come off the diet, it’s fairly predictable what’s going to happen…!

The way to a healthy body is a healthy mind

Biscuits are on the side during a tea break/cake is handed ‘round during someone birthday/chocolates are “calling you from the sweetie draw” – do you have one? Do a quick check with yourself:

  1. Are you hungry? – is this an appropriate thing to be eating at this time of day to satisfy the hunger you have?
  2. Are you feeling emotional? – is this an appropriate thing to eat to cope with how your feeling? Would you prefer to manage your emotions in another way?
  3. Do you want it just because it’s there? – that’s ok, but make sure you’re making a conscious decision and be aware that you are not eating this because you need it.
Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most. Quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln with background of mountains and trees

Because diet culture is so much the norm, language around food is really unhelpful. If you say “no” to the birthday cake, other people (who are probably feeling guilty* about eating some) will say “oh, you’re so good”. But it’s not about being “good” or “bad”. It is entirely up to you whether you say “yes” or “no” when feeling peer-pressure to join in, only you know why you’re eating it and whether you have a healthy relationship with food.

*I recently heard Raymond Blanc completely baffled by the question “what’s your guilty pleasure?” – he couldn’t comprehend why anyone would feel guilty about feeling pleasure from food. (Obviously) he’s right! We should never feel guilty about eating. If you’re eating, no matter what you’re eating, if you’re aware of why you’re eating it, no matter whether it’s reason 1, 2 or 3, and you’re ok with your reasoning, and it’s giving you pleasure – just enjoy it!

People end up feeling guilty when their relationship with food is such that they lie to themselves about why they’re eating. Tackling the reasons will in turn address the guilt. We should not feel guilty about nourishing our bodies!

Say no to fad diets text written using food to form the letters

We may need to re-educate ourselves about what a healthy diet looks like. For our bodies to function healthily and feel good we need a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fruits and veg. No foods are “off limits” but some may need to be eaten less often. A good relationship with food is about mindfully saying “yes”!

Stop labelling food!

I hear a lot of conversations from colleagues about whether they’ve been “good”, “bad” or “a little bit naughty”. Despite trying to be good, it seems being “bad” is inevitable! I’m baffled about how to get involved in these conversations, I’m not entirely sure what “good”, “bad” or “naughty” means. Through my eating disorder recovery, I’ve learnt that food is essential for life so how can it be bad to eat?!
I hear things like “well you’ve got to haven’t you?!” referring to “being a bit naughty”. It seems that if you want to have a good time, enjoy the social experience etc, “bad” food is usually consumed.
As regular readers of my blog will be aware, the angle I’m coming at this is having had an eating disorder. In my anorexic world, fewer and fewer foods made the “acceptable” list as more foods were transferred to the “dangerous” “scary” or “never eat” list. I could sometimes move a food from one to the other depending on how I ate it, whether I’d starved myself for long enough or if I knew I was going to be able to get enough exercise in. When things got really bad, there were certain food that made a list I’m ashamed of, that is “easy to purge”.
I’ve written previously about disordered eating and how dangerous that is; I think labelling foods is unhelpful and is down the road to disordered eating, unfortunately, it’s incredibly common.
Even considering some foods as “more healthy” than others is unhelpful. There are diets that are more or less healthy but no individual food is inherently unhealthy. Yes, we all know we’re meant to eat more fruit and veg in your diet than cakes, chocolate and biscuits but it is perfectly healthy to have some chocolate, once in a while (or everyday if that works for you).
One study may show that brown or “whole” foods are “more healthy” than their white counterpart, indigestible fibre helps keep he gut healthy; however, there are numerous bowel conditions that are exacerbated by high residue foods which means “white” foods are more healthy for these people.
One study shows particular foods as able to prevent cancer or some other illness, the next week, the same food will be shown to cause the aforementioned illness. The only conclusion to take from these is there is a no special diet that will cause or prevent any illness.
What’s also unhelpful is people believing their diet is “better” than someone else’s. Who’s to say why someone eats the way they do? Some people need to eat calorie dense foods quickly because that’s what suits their lifestyle. Other people need to eat food that will metabolise more slowly. We all have different body makeups and it’s wrong for anyone to impose their idea of “health” on anyone else. Being vegetarian or vegan is a personal choice that should not be imposed on anyone else (if you want to campaign against the meat/dairy industry that’s fine but don’t attack or reproach individuals).
In our diet culture, when people try to lose weight (to get their BMI to within the healthy range), they (usually) have a list of acceptable foods and unacceptable foods; however, it has been proven that deny yourself foods makes you crave them more (restricting in generally makes you more likely to binge) and feeling guilty about eating just adds to the negative effects! Foods high in saturated fat, high in sugar sugar or foods subjected to a lot of processing may have a negative impact on our health but if you like it, don’t feel guilty about eating it!
Food has also become a way of people feeling morally superior, if you choose “organic”, “free range”, “ethically sourced” or “sustainable”, some people consider themselves a better person than someone who doesn’t or can’t choose those options, for whatever reason. I’m vegetarian for a variety of reasons, I do not consider myself as morally superior, it’s my choice, I do not push my values on anyone else, please don’t push your values onto me.
Don’t get me started on “clean” eating! It’s such a bizarre label, if you want to choose certain foods because they make you feel good, go for it, but as far as I’m concerned if I’ve washed it, it’s clean! Don’t label everyone else’s diets as dirty just because you want to restrict your diet and feel ok about it! This label can be the start of a dangerous spiral into orthorexia.
Having previously categorised foods a “ok”, “scary”, “bad” or “unbearable”, I’m glad those days are behind me. I now see food and decide if I want it based on whether I want it or not – if I’m hungry, I’ll eat foods that will satisfy my hunger. If I’m not hungry but food is available/offered, I make the decision based on whether I like the taste, whether I’ll enjoy eating it and if it’s going to appropriate within the context of other things I’ve eaten. If you’re not hungry it’s not “right” or “wrong” to eat food it just requires thought.
If we label the foods as “good”, “bad”, “naughty”, “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “better” or “worse”, by extension, we label ourselves, this can have a profound impact on our self esteem. Feeling guilty or shameful about eating is not ok, making other people feel guilty about eating because of the choices you want to make is not ok. Let’s just eat the food we want to eat and stop labelling ourselves as “good”, “bad” or “naughty”.